a guide to a guide

In "A School Leader's Guide to Excellence," signs of Fariña's favored strategies

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has a playbook, and she’s sticking to it.

She explains it all in “A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence: Collaborating our Way to Better Schools,” a 2008 book she co-wrote with Laura Kotch, her longtime partner in education leadership, after leaving her job as a deputy chancellor. With its copies of staff appreciation memos and thank you letters she sent to teachers over the years, the book shows how strongly Fariña believes problems can be solved by making teachers and principals feel supported.

The book is more of a guide for an individual principal than a blueprint for running a huge system of diverse schools. But Fariña seems ready to apply many of its principles, and the book’s table of contents reads like a list of the new chancellor’s recent plans and promises:

Chapter 1: Formulate and Communicate Your Vision. Chapter 2: Engage in One-to-One Conversations. Chapter 3: Implement the Book-of-the-Month Structure. Chapter 4: Celebrate!

Some other points of interest:

FIXING A STRUGGLING SCHOOL: Fariña and Kotch write that soon after being appointed superintendent and deputy superintendent, they visited an elementary school with many English language learners that had landed on the state’s list of schools needing improvement. The principal told them she was struggling to deal with complacency among her teachers, but that one teacher in the school really stood out.

“We happily discovered that the fourth grade classroom she [the principal] brought us to aligned with our goals,” Fariña and Kotch write. “We celebrated the interactive learning environment with the students, complimented the teacher, and encouraged the principal to build on the strengths of this classroom by creating a corps of similarly minded teacher leaders who could study together, visit other schools, and begin to establish a collaborative school culture … We told her honestly that the reorganization ahead would not be easy nor accomplished quickly, but that we believed it could be achieved over time.”

They write that the school was off of the state’s list three years later, though they don’t give more specifics about its improvement.

IT’S NOT ABOUT TEST SCORES: Consistent with Fariña’s statements that she wants to lower the stakes of standardized tests where possible, she and Kotch advise principals to “be willing to take a public stand on unpopular issues,” including the emphasis on short-term, data-driven goals.

“Principled leaders look beyond narrow demands such as raising test scores and focus their priorities on more global initiatives such as graduating students who are inventive, analytical, literate, compassionate, artistic, and creative human beings,” they write.

Later, they’re even harsher about judging schools based on standardized test scores, urging schools to come up with “internal mechanisms to evaluate their own progress.”

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: Fariña and Kotch bookend their guide with calls to look beyond a school’s obvious problems. “Recognizing and affirming what is working well, even small beginning steps, is often a better vehicle for improvement than mandates, sanctions, or labels ranking one school against another,” they write.

That’s a straightforward rebuke of the accountability strategies being implemented by then-Chancellor Joel Klein when Fariña left the system. Finding the positive aspects of a struggling school is also something Fariña did recently with P.S. 106.

ATTENTION TO STAFF MORALE: A back-to-school letter from Fariña to principals when she was deputy chancellor reminds them to do walk-throughs of their schools before the teachers arrive to make sure the building is clean and that every teacher has a trash can. “Making sure each classroom has a wastebasket seems like a minor detail, but think about a teacher trying to set up a room without one,” she wrote.

In another note to principals before the holiday break, she urged them to “seek out one totally self-indulgent activity,” joking for them to “keep it legal and not deleterious to your health” and then to bring the energy back to their families and schools. Other suggestions include giving teachers throat lozenges and thank you notes after parent-teacher conferences and creating a committee to oversee school celebrations.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: It’s no secret that Fariña sees a big part of her job as repairing the perception of the Department of Education among teachers and parents. They learned big lessons about communicating her vision and asking for feedback as a principal and superintendent, she writes: “Communicating a list of mandates without getting to know the individuals who are expected to follow the mandates guarantees failure.”

CHANGE TAKES TIME: In describing changes at her schools, Fariña notes that many took years to fully take root. As Congress “prescribes radical changes it believes will instantly lead to improved test scores,” educators know that “swinging the pendulum from one extreme to another” is pointless, Fariña and Kotch write.

NEW FORMS OF PARENT ENGAGEMENT: Fariña and Kotch write that their parents were intimidated by their schools, only appearing for brief parent-teacher conferences even though they took great interest in their children’s education. When Fariña arrived at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, she found a few parent leaders making big-picture decisions like hiring and firing staff but doing little for the group of children referred to as “the janitors’ class.”

Both experiences influenced Fariña’s views on how schools should interact with parents, including those who can’t be present at their child’s school and those who might be too present. At P.S. 6, those dynamics changed over a period of 10 years, she writes. At the district level, additional translators and parent coordinators helped reach more parents, but calls for the city to communicate better with parents who don’t speak English have only intensified in recent years.

A MOMENTOUS FIRST MEETING: Fariña has long promoted balanced literacy, the approach to reading and writing pioneered by Lucy Calkins that lets students choose their own books from classroom libraries and limits teacher-led instruction. Calkins calls Fariña and Kotch “the best of the best” in her introduction to their book, in which they recount being awestruck at their first meeting.

“All the books and articles we had read could never teach the way being in the presence of an expert and passionate teacher could,” they write of watching Calkins. Fariña advocated for balanced literacy across her Brooklyn districts and then citywide under Klein, although the model fell out of favor by the end of Klein’s tenure.

WHAT’S MISSING: Many of Fariña’s specific ideas, like morning read-alouds with parents or grandparents day activities, are geared toward schools with younger students, while high school gets less emphasis. Her emphasis on literacy—including a detailed breakdown of her book-of-the-month initiative—also means few specific mentions of math or science instruction.

MORE MANTRAS: At Fariña’s appointment press conference, she said she would be focusing on communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency—or “five Cs and an E.” It’s a strategy she’s used for years to make her goals memorable. Some past mantras: “equity, energy, expectations, entourage/ensemble” and “courage, curriculum, content, capacity, celebration.”

EARLY PRAISE OF BILL DE BLASIO?: “Many of the best politicians get their start in local PTAs and on school boards, mentored by principals who think aloud as they model consensus-building strategies and collaborative decision making,” Fariña and Kotch write. (De Blasio got his political start on District 15’s school board, serving with Fariña.)

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.